Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Geoffrey Babbitt: On Categories & Seneca Review’s Book Prize

Seneca Review is inaugurating a book prize this summer (accepting submissions until August 15th), and since we’ve been fielding inquiries from potential submitters, we thought we’d offer a few practical clarifications.

But first, a meditation on the nature of categories.

While our journal is commonly associated with the lyric essay, we hesitated to use the term when naming our prize. In an introduction to our 2014 double-issue anthology, We Might As Well Call It the Lyric Essay, John D’Agata expressed dissatisfaction with the term. Indeed, in an ideal world, we might simply say “essay,” which ought to accommodate the genre’s vast breadth. Unfortunately, as D’Agata notes, it would be naïve to believe that “‘essay’ means for most readers what essayists hope it does.” And because none of the alternatives is better, we saw no other choice than to settle for “lyric essay.” (It was, however, a no-brainer to name the prize after Deborah Tall, who did so much for the essay and for poetry, as both a writer and an editor.) So we’re calling it the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize.

Part of the problem with the lyric essay, however, extends beyond nomenclature. After all, giving something a name creates a conceptual category. This is obvious enough to be ignorable—especially in the context of the “lyric essay,” which delineates a category. But it’s true of every appellation, every noun. Take tardigrades, for example—those lovable eight-legged microscopic creatures sometimes called “water bears” or “moss piglets,” whose famed resilience has made them popular on social media for the last several years. Simultaneous with their discovery and naming in the late eighteenth century, a conceptual category was created into or out of which various micro-animals could be sorted based on certain distinguishing characteristics. As with lyric essays, tardigrades were essentially there all along; they were just ambiguous nematode-like creatures until they were named into awareness.

But naming an in-between, such as the lyric essay—which Tall and D’Agata originally defined as a “sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem”—can show just how arbitrary categorization is. For example, in an article first published in The Journal of Philosophy in the ‘90s, Ernest Sosa imagines the concept of a “snowdiscall,” which is a piece of snow with any shape between a ball and a disc, inclusively. He reasons that since every snowball is a snowdiscall (but not the other way around) and since there are an infinite number of possible shapes between a round ball and a piece of snow squashed flat, then any snowball, unbeknownst to us, also constitutes infinite other objects. Those entities simply await identification. The consequence, Sosa shows, of recognizing new things that are in between things we’ve already named is, what he calls, “the explosion of reality.” Not only is the world limitless, but so is every object we’ve ever conceived. “[T]he barest flutter of the smallest leaf,” Sosa writes, “creates and destroys infinitely many things.”

Every category presents a catch-22. On the one hand, the conceptual consequences of naming are part of its power. As Eula Biss put it in our Fall 2007 special issue on the lyric essay: “Naming something is a way of giving it permission to exist.” Or as D’Agata says at the close of his introduction, the category “lyric essay” just might help “[open] up our genre to new possibilities and new paths of inquiry, helping us to shape our experiences in the world in ways we have not yet imagined.” That’s our hope, anyway.

On the other hand, one always pays a price with categories. The word “category,” in fact, originally harbored more negative connotations. κατηγορέω meant to accuse or bring charges against—as, for example, in Book VII of Herodotus’s Histories: “the slanderer does wrong by accusing [κατηγορέων] one who isn’t there.” And the noun form, κατήγορος, meant an accuser, occasionally even a betrayer. Aristotle’s Categories (Κατηγορίαι), which lays groundwork for his Metaphysics, focuses on ten categories that were translated into medieval Latin as praedicamenta, or “predicaments.”

Any category does indeed leave its users in a sort of predicament. We can’t forego categories lest we risk incoherence, but they’re inherently flawed. In an essay Rebecca Solnit recently wrote the day after Thoreau’s 200th birthday, she calls categories “leaky vessels” and notes that “everything you can say about a category of people—immigrant taxi drivers, say, or nuns—has its exceptions, and so the category obscures more than it explains, though it does let people tidy up the complicated world into something simpler.” Of course, her observation extends beyond categories of people, where such simplification may seem more innocuous because it’s requisite for navigating the world. Nevertheless, a category is a necessary evil that always sacrifices nuance for convenience, precision for utility.

But while a roughly classical view of categorization persists as common sense in everyday life, it has been dismantled by later thinkers, especially poststructuralists. Kant claimed, in Critique of Pure Reason, that Aristotle chose his categories capriciously: “he merely picked them up as they occurred to him.” In Will to Power, Nietzsche goes further, arguing that such Aristotelian categories as “being” and “substance” “have nothing to do with metaphysical truths.” Categories, according to Nietzsche, are essentially “lies”—useful conceptual fictions that stabilize our experience of a world in flux. And in The Order of Things, while conducting an “archeological inquiry” into the very conditions that render knowledge possible, Foucault observes the tentativeness, even the arbitrariness, of categorization:
When we establish a considered classification, when we say that a cat and a dog resemble each other less than two greyhounds do, even if both are tame or embalmed, even if both are frenzied, even if both have just broken the water pitcher, what is the ground on which we are able to establish the validity of this classification with complete certainty?... [T]here is nothing more tentative… than the process of establishing an order among things.
While categories purport to be determined by necessary connections, they are in fact arbitrarily formed out of contingencies. The resulting sense of order, which is a safeguard against an explosion of reality, is only possible because of hidden presuppositions or “a preliminary criterion,” as Foucault says.

As this line of thinking applies to literary genres, it means that any genre—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama—is nothing more than a collectively hallucinated category. Apply enough pressure, find enough examples troubling the distinction between one genre and the next, and the boundaries dissolve. There are plenty of works within just “Poetry,” for example, that have more significant differences with one another than they have characteristics in common. A genre is ultimately arbitrary. It is publishers, marketers, and plenty of readers—but generally not writers—who think such categories matter. In reality, each genre is endless, and there are potentially innumerable genres, which is another way of saying there really aren’t any.

But enough abstraction. Given our deep-seated skepticism of categories, where does that leave us with our “lyric essay manuscript” genre?

Well, we mean for our lyric essay category to buck the very notion of category. Ours is an anti-category. While we invite lyric essay manuscripts, we are also open to manuscripts comprised of works that might not fit neatly under the umbrella of the lyric essay. For this reason, we tried to cast a wide net in our guidelines: “Cross-genre and hybrid work, verse forms, text and image, connected or related pieces, and ‘beyond category’ projects are all within the ambit of the contest.” But we’re also open to more traditional nonfiction, as well as work that skirts the borders between nonfiction and poetry, between nonfiction and fiction.

An anti-category call for submissions admittedly presents a bit of a predicament. On the one hand, we want our call to register expansively, but on the other hand, it can’t be so expansive that it doesn’t preclude anything. So here’s a preclusion: We’re not looking for non-essayistic novels or standard collections of poems or short stories.

More than form and genre, however, we’re primarily concerned with the success with which each manuscript carries itself into realization. While reading, we won’t be thinking of category. (We hope we’ve gotten all such preoccupation out of our systems here.) Our focus will be solely on the writing, the art. We hope you’ll send us yours.


Geoffrey Babbitt's first book—Appendices Pulled from a Study on Light, a poetry/essay/image hybrid work—is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Publishing in 2018. His essays and poems have appeared in North American Review, Pleiades, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Notre Dame Review, TYPO, Washington Square, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He teaches at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, where he coedits Seneca Review.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this meditation on the category and genre. It makes a spirited argument against the use of both. I'm excited about the prize and reading the winning manuscript.

    I also wonder if you could say a little more about what you and the prize are for, rather than against? When you say your focus "will be solely on the writing, the art" are you reaffirming the position D'Agata has voiced so many times, which has been critiqued so many times, that your interest is somehow primarily or "solely" aesthetic, without particular concern for, say, the epistemological, ethical, political, or ontological values of the work? "Anti-category" sounds exciting, but it's a negative gesture. A few of us experimental essayists are interested in positive gestures, in crafting work that moves beyond and reinvents categories in the service of aims beyond only the writing, the art.

    The closest gesture I see in your meditation to that desire is when you quote D'Agata's hope that the lyric essay will open "our genre to new possibilities and new paths of inquiry, helping us to shape our experiences in the world in ways we have not yet imagined,” and here D'Agata seems to imply that the lyric essay has an epistemological purpose, representational fidelity, and innovation for the sake of imaginative and even practical utility, which are investments that have defined traditional categories and genres.

    Maybe the purpose of the prize is to showcase the relatively less celebrated genres you describe in the rules as "hybrid work, verse forms, text and image, connected or related pieces" and of course "the lyric essay." Or maybe the purpose is just to shake things up, to find a fascinating snowdiscall and offer it to us, so we can see if our reality explodes a bit?

    Don't get me wrong: I don't want to rehash the same debates that took place around About a Mountain and The Lifespan of a Fact or the reviews of The Making of the American Essay, important thought they are, but it surprises me that the editors of a book prize would shrug intellectually over the terms they use to define their prize. Why not call it the "Deborah Tall Book Prize for Innovative or Experimental Writing" or just the "Deborah Tall Prize," since "writing" and "book" are also an unstable categories?

    Whatever the case, I'm looking forward to encountering new work in the spirit of Deborah Tall. That's art worth affirming.